The Italian mob drama Gomorrah was first described to me as “Italy's The Wire.” That's an unfair label to hang on any new show, and one that for the most part doesn't even really fit, as Gomorrah is a much more traditional crime show, without most of the larger sociological interests that made The Wire one of the best series in TV history. But as I watched the early installments of the series, which makes its American debut tonight at 10 on Sundance with back-to-back episodes, I experienced the same two feelings I often hear of from people watching The Wire for the first time:
1)I'm having a hard time keeping track of who anyone is and what their role is in this world.
2)I don't see what the fuss is yet, and I hope this is all adding up to something.
With The Wire, I generally tell people to give it four episodes (preferably watched close together) to resolve the character confusion and establish whether the show's for them or not. With Gomorrah, I figured out the organizational hierarchy – or, at least, that there were only a handful of characters who really mattered, and what their relationships were to each other – fairly quickly, but it took nearly twice as long for all the pieces to add up to something interesting, and even then it was just a pretty good gangster melodrama. By the time I'd made it through all 12 episodes of the first season, I'd been entertained, but probably not enough for the amount of time required to get there.
The series is based on the best-selling book by journalist Roberto Saviano, which was already adapted into a film of the same name back in 2008. The focus here is on a Naples crime family led by Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino) and his wife Imma (Maria Pia Calzone). Pietro's young adult son Genny (Salvatore Esposito) is a sweet, soft kid who's the life of the party but not necessarily built to inherit the empire one day, and leans heavily on soldier Ciro (Marco D'Amore) for advice and protection. Though many other players move in and out of the orbit of that quartet, only a few ever turn into people worth learning the names of: Salvatore Conte (Marco Palvetti), the ponytailed, vaping leader of a rival clan; Daniele (Vincenzo Sacchettino), a teenager recruited by Ciro; and Franco Musi (Antonio Zavatteri), the Savastano family's cocky money manager.
They're at the center of an extremely straightforward mob saga, filled with moves, countermoves, and frequent bursts of violence. It's the show (other than subtitles and a near-complete lack of humor) many Sopranos fans seemed to wish they were watching back in the day. But even the four main characters possess little depth, and are defined by one or two familiar traits, whether Don Pietro's steely arrogance or Lady Imma's frustration at being dismissed because of her gender. The early episodes, focusing mainly on Don Pietro, really drag, occasionally perking up for a well-executed version of a familiar gangster story device (a death contrasted with a musical performance, or a prison riot). A few episodes told from the POV of minor players like Daniele and Musi are much more effective, not only because they manage to turn those characters into three-dimensional people in a way that Ciro or Imma never really become, but because they more powerfully convey the impact that the mob has on the world around it.
(Minor spoilers follow in the next paragraph.)
Then, midway through the season, Genny returns from an off-camera misadventure overseas with a new look and an entirely different personality – imagine if Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket had actually become the confident, remorseless killing machine that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman wanted – and while this makes everything much livelier, it feels like a cheat, rather than an earned character transformation. Everything builds up to war, within and without the Savastano clan, and while there are many colorful ways in which people die, the thrills are empty ones, because none of the people involved amount to more than pieces on a chess board. And the ultimately resolution feels more about setting up the second season (which debuted in Italy earlier this year) than providing the most impactful end to this one.
Again, comparisons to The Wire – or Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, or any other modern American crime drama that demands the audience's patience early on – is wildly unfair to Gomorrah, or any other young series. But those shows ultimately reward that early patience tenfold, taking advantage of television's strengths to make little moments in the beginning matter hugely at the end. With Gomorrah, the later rewards don't retroactively make the early hours better; they just made me wish the whole thing was either a lot deeper, or a lot tighter. I don't know what the state of Italian TV drama is right now, but in Peak TV in America – when we have easy access to the best shows of all time from our country, not to mention remarkable imports from around the world like Happy Valley and Les Revenants – a 12-hour commitment to get maybe half that in thrills seems a bad investment of time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org